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In Judge Juan Merchan, Trump may have met his match

The judge kept the former president on a tight leash when jurors were in the courtroom.

As the various criminal proceedings against Donald Trump have traveled at times tortuous routes in recent years, a frequent refrain has been that he is escaping consequences for some of his most serious alleged misconduct. But this week he finally faced the start of a criminal trial, in the New York courtroom of Judge Juan Merchan. And as proceedings turn to opening statements Monday, what we have seen so far suggests that the artful dodger of accountability may have finally met his match. 

In Merchan’s courtroom, our country’s bedrock principle that no one is above the law is flourishing. In this first week of proceedings, the jury selection process proved resilient and, despite challenges, moved much faster than many thought.

Merchan has so far managed this trial just as judges all over the country run their criminal courts each day.

As one of the authors recently outlined in a new book on the trial, the court will need to seat 18 jurors in total: 12 who will sit on the jury and six alternates, in case any of the regular jurors drops out or is discharged. Any adult resident of New York County is a prospective member of the jury pool. 

Merchan has so far managed this trial just as judges all over the country run their criminal courts each day. First, he took the jurors in batches, in this case panels of 96 individuals. Merchan accelerated what could have been a drawn-out process by asking the panel whether they felt they could be impartial; more than half said they could not and were immediately dismissed. The same happened again on Thursday, with more than half of the group excused.

Some may feel that the large number of the pool proactively admitting to bias is proof that Trump cannot get a fair trial in Manhattan. In fact, it proves just the opposite. The jury selection process is a time-tested institution of our legal system. In most criminal trials, at least some members of the jury pool admit bias, whether based on the nature of the charges or on strong opinions they hold about elements of the case, and are dismissed. For those who remain, lawyers on both sides have the opportunity to probe for bias and strike jurors to winnow down the pool to those who can be fair and impartial. 

That’s exactly what Trump’s attorneys — and the prosecution — did here. At Trump’s trial, each juror answered more than 40 questions, ranging from the biographical (“Are you married?”), to the case-specific (“Have you ever read Michael Cohen’s book?”). The attorneys then questioned each prospective juror to determine whether there were grounds to challenge a juror “for cause”—because their answers show they cannot be fair and impartial. 

Here, Trump’s attorneys grilled the jury pool on old social media posts the attorneys had unearthed from their accounts. This tactic met with success, as Merchan dismissed a number of prospective jurors out of an abundance of caution on the grounds that their prior posts may compromise their impartiality. 

Inside the courtroom Trump must follow the same rules as any other criminal defendant.

Beyond this questioning, each party also gets 10 peremptory challenges for the regular jurors (and two for each alternate seat), essentially a no-questions-asked ability to strike a prospective juror. Even with both sides dismissing jurors both for cause and through peremptory challenges, after only three days of jury selection, by the end of the week a full 12-person jury and six alternates had been seated. 

It helped that the judge kept the former president on a tight leash when jurors were in the courtroom. While Trump may broadcast his tirades against the legal system and American elections to millions around the world on Truth Social (and faces a contempt hearing for possible gag order violations as a result), inside the courtroom he must follow the same rules as any other criminal defendant. For example, when Trump carried on while one of the jurors was being interviewed this week, gesticulating and speaking audibly, Merchan forcefully responded, establishing, “I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom.”

True, there was an unusual and concerning complication Thursday morning. First, a juror selected Tuesday asked to be excused, after media reporting on individual jurors had led her family and acquaintances to ask if she was on the jury. Merchan granted her request, cautioned reporters to use “common sense” and ordered restrictions on some identifying information about jurors. Then, the prosecution raised questions about the candor of a second juror, who compounded matters by failing to show up on time to answer additional inquiries. He eventually appeared, and after questioning he too was excused.

By mid-morning we were down to five jurors and it looked like the momentum of the prior days might be lost. But Merchan got the proceedings back to a perfectly ordinary jury selection process in this extraordinary trial. Lo and behold by the end of Thursday, the first 12 jurors were seated and the first of the six alternates. By Friday afternoon, the remaining five alternates were seated, and Merchan could declare, “We have our full panel.”

Tragically, that moment of normalcy was punctuated by a protester who set himself on fire outside the courthouse. But we must not allow that heartbreaking moment to detract from what happened in court this week. Every American can be proud that this first week of the first criminal trial of a former president was, for the most part, business as usual. 

By commencing this high-pressure proceeding in the usual manner and ensuring jurors are unbiased as well as unintimidated, Merchan is demonstrating that, in America, we aspire to equal justice for all. As one prospective juror put it earlier this week, “Nobody is above the law — whether a sitting president, a former president or a janitor.” The more-or-less nuts-and-bolts process we saw unfold this week paves the way for a prompt opening of the case and shows that accountability is coming for Donald Trump at last.